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Chatsworth Court's Opening Pushed Back at Least to Spring

Services: The nearly completed facility was supposed to have opened last month. Now, state budgetary woes are complicating the staffing situation.

November 08, 2001|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of delay, the $98-million Chatsworth courthouse is almost complete, but no one knows for sure when it will open for business.

Presiding Judge James A. Bascue said the Los Angeles County Superior Court needs more state money for staffing. Without it, he said, the court may have to further delay opening the building.

"It would be tragic to have a courthouse, ready to serve the community, without the staff to service it," Bascue said.

The structure is 98% complete, said Vanann Allen, head of the county's Department of Public Works section overseeing construction. County officials said they are negotiating with the developer, the Alexander Haagen Co., on a completion date.

County Has Asked for 18 Staffers

In the next few months, workers will finish interior walls and furnish the cafeteria, she said. Directional signs and public artwork will be installed, and the building's security, electrical and exhaust systems will be tested.

The 300,000-square-foot granite courthouse, near Winnetka Avenue and Plummer Street, was expected to open last month. Now, county officials say it should open in spring.

In its last budget request, the Los Angeles court asked the state for $940,000 to hire 18 people to staff the clerk's office and jury assembly room, said Judge William A. MacLaughlin, who chairs the court's personnel and budget committee.

State officials contend that's more than needed, and they agreed to seek funding for 10 positions.

"From our view, those positions would provide adequate resources to open the facility," said William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the state court system. But he said his staff is reviewing the issue with local officials.

Staffing for courtrooms will come from the San Fernando justice complex, because cases there will be transferred to Chatsworth.

But the state failed to consider the need for adequate staffing outside those courtrooms, Bascue said.

"When you open a new courthouse, it takes more personnel," Bascue said. "I'm hopeful that [the state] would give us the money for appropriate staffing."

Budget Puts Additional Funding in Jeopardy

MacLaughlin said he's also hopeful, calling the $350,000 needed to hire eight more clerks "minuscule" in the court's $575-million budget.

But with a state budget crunch looming, it is uncertain whether Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature will approve any new positions for the court, even the 10 in the budget request.

"The prospect for increased funding probably is not as good as it was six months ago," MacLaughlin said, adding that "all aspects of the court's operation are under continual [fiscal] review."

The Chatsworth courthouse has had a rocky history, beginning with fierce opposition from neighbors. Long delays and huge cost overruns, which the Alexander Haagen Co. blamed on the county, resulted in a $4.6-million settlement paid to the company.

The facility once was estimated to cost $59 million.

It was among a dozen or more courthouses once scheduled for construction under the county's 1980 Courthouse Construction Fund, which uses court fees to finance projects. Initial plans called for the Chatsworth courthouse to be built in the early 1990s.

A 1998 state audit of the fund found that poor planning and mismanagement caused the county to waste $18.6 million on courthouse construction.

In Chatsworth, the modern, four-level courthouse will offer San Fernando Valley residents a convenient place to pay traffic tickets, file lawsuits and serve on juries.

When completed, the courthouse will have 10 courtrooms, with space for up to eight more.

Most of the courts will be moved from the San Fernando justice complex, said MacLaughlin, who supervises both sites.

With more space available in San Fernando, juvenile traffic matters, and unlawful detainer and small civil cases transferred to Van Nuys after the 1994 Northridge earthquake will be returned to the justice complex, MacLaughlin said.

In Chatsworth, the seven judicial officers will handle traffic, unlawful detainer and small civil cases.

For now, the high-security courthouse will be used to handle only minor criminal cases, court officials said, fulfilling a promise made to neighbors a decade ago.

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